Tag Archives: regulation

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Ban Drones

Image result for sky full of drones           Ban drones.

Why not?

We have succumbed, in recent years, to technological passivity, the assumption that there’s nothing we can (or should) do about what an older generation used to call “progress.” But that’s not true.

War goes on, yet most of the world’s nations came together to ban landmines. Mines, humanity decided, were a horror we could no longer live with because their murderous potential remained long after the frontlines moved elsewhere, even after hostilities ceased, and mostly hurt civilians. Similarly, chemical weapons were banned after mustard gas scarred the World War I generation.

Here in the United States, societal consensus supports bans of hollow-point bullets that explode inside the body (they’re currently banned by the military), high-capacity magazines for guns, the bump stocks that came to our attention after the mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas, and semi-automatic assault rifles.

Weapons aren’t the only tech to which society simply responds: “Hell no. Just. No.” Human cloning has prompted calls for bans by those who believe we shouldn’t plow ahead without better understanding the potential downsides. Alcohol and cigarettes are banned for children. Lots of drugs are banned. Banning products is a well-established societal and political prerogative.

Drones should be banned too: military drones as well as recreational ones. We already have a substantial body of evidence that they are dangerous. Potential advantages, on the other side, seem relatively modest. They’re cool. I’ve played with them.

No one has sat down to consider, in a careful measured way, the pros and cons of unmanned aerial vehicles. Where, as our skies are about to turn into the Wild West, are the Congressional hearings and expert opinions?

If you stop to think about it, selling drones to any yahoo with $400 is a recipe for chaos. Launched from the roof of a Manhattan apartment building, a pervert’s drone can peep through windows. A terrorist, or merely a doofus, can fly one into the blades of a low-flying helicopter or into the engine or windshield of a plane approaching the airport. And they will. It’s only a matter of time.

The terrorism potential became evident in 2015 when a guy accidentally flew his Phantom drone onto the White House lawn. Loading one with explosives is easy. Or a gun—a father and son affixed a pistol to a drone and fired it remotely in the woods of Connecticut.

I’m even less sanguine about corporate and institutional applications. Whether it’s Uber and NASA’s announcement that they plan to launch flying taxis in Los Angeles or Amazon’s imminent fleet of delivery drones, I’m not sure I want to live long enough to hear buzzing drones where birds are supposed to sing, or see some dude’s dinner pass overhead. Maybe a sane compromise is possible, like limiting the gadgets to flight paths above major roadways. Why can’t we figure that out now, before the inevitable technological growing pains (aka deaths and injuries and overall crapitude)?

While it’s easy to imagine how drones can improve our lives—they have already found missing hikers in the wilderness, for example—it is impossible to overstate how creepy it would be to put them into the hands of law enforcement. Obama attorney general Eric Holder said in 2013, and no legal expert challenged him, that the feds have the right to launch military drone strikes against American citizens on U.S. soil. California cops used one to track a rogue LAPD officer a few years ago. Local law enforcement drones could catch speeders, scan for expired vehicle registration and inspection stickers (stationary devices already do) and use thermal imaging devices to conduct warrantless searches. And there will come a day, not in the distant future, when the same Cleveland police department that shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice to death for the crime of playing while black will type commands into an iPad that controls an armed drone that blows up more innocent civilians.

This is serious, major dystopian horror-show crap. Can’t we stop it before it starts?

Overseas, and thus far from the decreasingly vigilant eyes of our increasingly establishmentarian journalists, the Trump Administration is expanding the military drone assassination program Obama expanded after inheriting it from Bush. Formerly focused on killing young men and whoever happens to be nearby in South Asian zones like Pakistan, where studies show that 98% of the thousands of victims were innocent, the drone killers are ramping up in new places like Africa.

“The number of American strikes against Islamist militants last year tripled in Yemen and doubled in Somalia from the figure a year before,” reports The New York Times. “Last month, an armed drone flown from a second base in Niger killed a Qaeda leader in southern Libya for the first time, signaling a possible expansion of strikes there.”

Like the innately disconcerting notion of letting local-yokel cops run wild with facial-recognition-enabled autopiloted self-guided missile drones, it is impossible to overstate how self-defeating America’s drone program has been to U.S. interests. Unlike here, where the nearly daily attacks barely rate a mention in the news, people in other countries and especially in the Muslim world are well aware of the fact that the vast majority of victims are innocent civilians, including many women and children. (Even the “guilty” men who die aren’t threats to the U.S., but rather to the corrupt local governments we supply with arms.) Local populations in cities where drones patrol the skies are jittery and resentful. Many have PTSD.

True, drones eliminate harm to American soldiers. But we operate them in macho cultures that prize honor and courage. Our unwillingness to risk our sons and daughters in ground combat makes us look not just like aggressors, but cowards worthy only of contempt. In a war for hearts and minds, drones are propaganda suicide.
We’ve begun a new arms race. When a foreign country or non-state actor attacks us with drones, who will listen when we complain?

Even in the short run, drone killings don’t work. “Eliminating jihadi military leaders through drone operations could temporarily disorganize insurgent groups,” Jean-Hervé Jezequel, deputy director of the International Crisis Group told the Times. “But eventually the void could also lead to the rise of new and younger leaders who are likely to engage into more violent and spectacular operations to assert their leadership.”

A drone ban doesn’t have to be forever. But it should last long enough for us to figure out, as Donald Trump used to say on the campaign trail, what the hell is going on.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the editorial cartoonist and columnist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Toxic Assets

Many Foreclosed Houses Are Infested by Mold

The next time someone tells you that capitalism is efficient, remember the mold houses.

I used to be a banker. Some of my customers had trouble making their loan payments. We usually had recourse to some sort of collateral—often real estate. But my bank really didn’t want to foreclose.

“We’re bankers,” my boss told me the first time this issue came up. “Not landlords.”

Back in the 1980s most banks held this view. Bankers sat on their butts in air-conditioned offices. They didn’t want to manage vacated properties, much less try to sell them. They understood banking. Banking was a straightforward business: take deposits, issue loans, collect the difference in interest as profit.

It was boring. Just the way they liked it.

My bank did a lot to avoid declaring a default. We lowered interest rates. We allowed skipped payments. Sometimes we even reduced principal.

Banking became exciting during the 1990s. Glass-Steagall got repealed, allowing formerly staid bankers to compete with high-flying Wall Street financiers in the securities business. Bank consulting firms invented big new fees for services that used to be free, like using an ATM.

Banks issued millions of home loans to borrowers whom they knew couldn’t afford to pay them back. Crédit Suisse estimates that such “liars’ loans” accounted for 49 percent of originations by 2006. Why they’d do it? Like mobsters, bank executives were “busting out” their companies—generating false short-term profits in order to collect annual performance bonuses. By the time the toxic chickens came home to roost, as they did in the form of the September 2008 financial crisis, they and their paychecks had moved on.

As the global financial system was in the midst of total collapse, greedy bankers conjured up a way to profit from the very misery they had caused. Rather than work with distressed homeowners who faced foreclosure (for example, refinancing subprime and adjustable rate mortgages into old-fashioned 30-year fixed mortgages) they dragged out the process in order to collect more late fees.

Banks were eager to foreclose. They were merciless. They evicted homeowners while they were on active-duty serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, a violation of federal law. They even evicted people who didn’t owe them a cent.

Now banks are sitting on top of nearly a million homes. “All told, [banks] own more than 872,000 homes as a result of the groundswell in foreclosures, almost twice as many as when the financial crisis began in 2007, according to RealtyTrac, a real estate data provider,” reports The New York Times. “In addition, they are in the process of foreclosing on an additional one million homes and are poised to take possession of several million more in the years ahead.”

Which is where the wonderful tragic tale of the mold houses comes in.

“In most homes,” reported NPR recently, “as residents go in and out and the seasons change, natural ventilation sucks moisture up to the attic and out through the roof. It’s called the ‘stack effect.’ And in many parts of the country, it’s driven by air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter. But no one is going in or out of most foreclosed homes—regardless of climate—and the effects can be devastating.”

Far from the profit center imagined by freshly-minted analysts with MBAs, empty houses depreciate faster than a new car driving off the lot. They fall apart quickly. Mildew and mold sets in, some of it toxic.

“In some states, it’s estimated that more than half of foreclosed homes have mold and mildew issues,” reported NPR. “Realtors across the country say they’re seeing the problem in everything from bungalows to mansions.”

Turns out those old-fashioned bankers were on to something. Bankers shouldn’t become landlords.

A minor mold problem starts at $5,000 and can easily run $20,000 or more. Considering that the average house in the Midwest is valued at $136,000, that’s not insignificant. Many houses with toxic mold have to be demolished.

Greed may be good. But it doesn’t always pay.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL